Over to You

THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS

My purse was gone. Passport Credit cards. Priceless film. But then...

DONNA COOPER July 12 2004
Over to You

THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS

My purse was gone. Passport Credit cards. Priceless film. But then...

DONNA COOPER July 12 2004

THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS

My purse was gone. Passport Credit cards. Priceless film. But then...

Over to You

DONNA COOPER

“DO YOU have my purse?”

“No,” my boyfriend assured me. He sported the over-the-shoulder travel pouch, which we had affectionately dubbed the man-bag, but he was certainly not carrying my purse, not in a British pub where men were wearing ale-stained rugby shirts. “No purse.”

And that’s when I knew: I had been, as the Brits say, burgled.

We’d made it through two weeks of touring, an endless run of plane, bus and tube rides amid heightened fears of terrorist attacks in Europe. We’d dodged cars and lorries flying

like bullets through the streets of London. We’d even managed to escape Trafalgar Square without the famous pigeons using us for target practice.

But our luck had run out. On the night before we were scheduled to fly back to Toronto, someone had stealthily slid my purse from my side as I sat on a rustic wooden bench in a Hampstead pub enjoying one last pint.

Gone were my credit cards and all forms of identification, including—worst of all— my passport. Considering that there’s a thriving black market for Canadian passports, the thief had made off with a fine haul indeed. Less valuable, but more priceless, was a roll of film, full of snapshots of our sunny day in Oxford.

In a panic, my boyfriend and I retraced our steps through the pub. He rifled through rubbish bins while I checked every stall in the loo. But it was no use. The purse was gone. My heart grew sick, and then I started to cry. Not uncontrollably, but bitter tears wet my cheeks as I went about the urgent business of cancelling credit cards and notifying the Canadian consulate of my stolen passport.

Even though pickpockets are as common as black cabs in London, disbelief washed over me. Was it possible to lose everything so quickly? Could it really happen to me?

Of course.

Ironically, the purse-snatching made me feel like less of a tourist. No more velvet ropes, no paintings behind glass, no lilting voice of a tour guide leading me through

hallowed halls of history. Now, instead, I was a tiny thread in the living tapestry of London. After all, I had been robbed at the Spaniards Inn, reputed to be the birthplace of legendary highwayman Dick Turpin. The scene of the crime made this London theft painfully authentic.

Our next stop was the local police station, harshly lit by fluorescent bulbs and blinking computer screens. Beyond the bulletproof glass that separated us, the bobbies looked pale, pleasant enough, perhaps a little bored

as they filled out the police report. This was obviously a familiar routine for them, an unfortunate event, yes, but also mundane. Maybe that’s why what happened next still seems so unbelievable.

An officer emerged from the hall, asked my name and informed me that my bag had been found—with my passport safely inside. I soon learned that after a Londoner named Ben Jones had left a dinner party in Hampstead Heath, he discovered a discarded purse at the side of the road. Having recently been burgled himself, he picked it up and immediately telephoned police.

He even called my mother in Ontario, whose number I keep in my wallet in case of emergency, in an attempt to track down the purse’s owner. She told him where we were staying in London and he swiftly sent my bag to me by cab.

My British change was gone (about £3 worth), along with a Canadian $10 bill. But along with my passport, my credit, health and social insurance cards, driver’s licence, and even that precious roll of film were all still there.

What luck! If Mr. Jones (whom I now consider London’s true Big Ben) had waited till morning to call the police, or if he had left his dinner party half an hour earlier, what a different ending my story might have. Thanks to this stranger, I could return home as planned, my final hours in Britain marked by joy and gratitude.

Next morning, as we hopped aboard the express train to Heathrow Airport, I had a renewed appreciation for an old cliché, and how it’s especially true for travellers: timing is everything. It takes a great deal of planning and effort to get around in foreign places without someone, or something, getting lost. And since 2001, new fears have challenged the notion that a dependable order will keep us moving in the right direction. But whether venturing just outside the front door or halfway around the world, most of us still believe that—for the most part—things will go according to plan. And if we’re lucky, the goodwill of others will make our road less bumpy.

There will be, we tell ourselves, no explosions on the train this day. The plane will stay its course. In the face of such catastrophes, my stolen purse matters little—while the kind-hearted concern of a stranger in London matters all the more. IJl

Donna Cooper lives in St. Catharines, Ont.

To comment: overtoyou@macleans.ca